Be Patient and Learn from a Variety of Leaders with Karl Renne '96

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  • Our Mission: This podcast aims to share leadership stories from our VMI Corps of Cadets and high-profile leaders who visit the Center for Leadership and Ethics (CLE) and VMI.
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Retired CIA Agent, former marine, and entrepreneur Karl Renne, VMI Class of 1996, is a founding partner and CEO of Ghost Wolf Industries. Renne spent nearly 17 years with the CIA as a Chief Operations officer. Learn why Renne says leaders benefit from learning from all kinds of individuals and the common mistake he and others make early in their careers. Join us! You can learn more from Renne by watching his presentation from last year's alumni breakout session during our 'Disruption' leadership conference. 

Our Center's mission is to enhance the VMI citizen-soldier journey with programming that educates, engages and inspires critical thinking, ethical decision-making, and leadership development. The VMI Leader Journey podcast is an outreach program where our guests share insights from their personal leadership development journey, and where VMI may have contributed to their personal growth. In this episode, we touched on leadership competencies taught in the mandatory course on leadership in organizations and addressed in the publications VMI Leader Journey publication.

Transcript for “Be Patient and Learn from a Variety of Leaders” with Karl Renne '96

KARL RENNE ’96: …to me, leadership means being able to take a group of people and accomplish something, where you're not looking for the glory, you're not looking for the accolades. You're there to accomplish a mission - a task.

EMILY COLEMAN: Welcome to the VMI Center for Leadership and Ethics Leadership Journey podcast.

DEREK PINKHAM:  This podcast aims to share leadership stories from our vi corps cadets, and high-profile leaders who visit the Center for Leadership and ethics and VMI Post. We're on this journey with you.

COLEMAN: Hi, I'm Emily Coleman

PINKHAM: And I'm Derek Pinkham, 

COLEMAN: And we're your hosts of the podcast. 

PINKHAM: Mr. Karl Renne, VMI class of ’94 is a founding partner and CEO of Ghost Wolf Industries, which delivers artificial intelligence solutions to the defense Security Intelligence sectors.

COLEMAN: He served multiple tours as CIA Chief of Operations and as a paramilitary operations officer. Before joining the CIA, Karl served in the U. S. military. Karl spoke with us at our leadership conference in 2019 where he was a guest speaker.

PINKHAM: and without further delay, we give you, Karl Renne.

COLEMAN: So first, we want to ask just tell us your background a little bit about yourself and what led you to VMI.

PINKHAM: Right. Sort of your origin story. 

RENNE: Oh, wow. Okay.  I grew up here in Virginia, in Tidewater, in Williamsburg on the peninsula and VMI was obviously an in-state school, it was one that always kind of intrigued me. I had a few folks back in that area, older gentlemen that had come here. And then were alum from, say, the 60s at the time, that told me about the school and encouraged me to come out and take a look at it. And so, I did, and I thought that it was pretty interesting, and at the time, I thought it looked like really great, fun place.

COLEMAN: Ha, at the time…

RENNE: So, I ended up matriculating at VMI. And obviously, you know, your first year the Rat Line is all cadets know, is never fun or exciting. But at the same time, when you look back on it, it's some of the most formative in terms of both your personality and even to do with your leadership abilities, if you will. And then over the course of that cadetship, I was very fortunate. We had a lot of great professors here. A lot of great instructors in the ROTC department, as well as other alum in the area that participated in those things. I was commissioned as a marine officer after that, and while here, for example, Colonel Dabney, who is a retired Marine Colonel and VMI alum, who was the son-in-law of Chesty Puller used to come and speak to us as cadets, and he didn't come into J. M. Hall with a big formation and stuff, he would come to our ROTC class, and sit on the desk, and just talk to us and tell us, at the time this being the mid 90s, telling us his reflections from serving during the Vietnam War as a lieutenant in combat and all sorts of things. So, I was commissioned. I went out to... I went into the Marine Corps, went to the fleet and served in the Pacific, mainly. And then my B-Billet as we say, in the Marine Corps, I got to spend on Navy submarine base and Southeast Georgia, which convinced me wholeheartedly to go ahead and leave out of the Marine Corps. I resigned my commission and gave my command plenty of time to get a replacement in and in that interim period while I was still in active duty, 911 happened. I was certain that the Marine Corps would stop loss me, in other would say you can't get out, but the Marine Corps didn't really need a lot officers. It never has. It runs on a lot of enlisted Marines. So, they said, 'Nope, you're good.' So, I was single still. I got out I was on terminal leave. I was staying, actually, with one of my brother rats and I got a phone call from a gentleman who didn't identify himself that said, 'Hey, I have your resume here. It looks very interesting. Are you interested in a job with the government?' I said absolutely. With who? He said, 'Well, I can't tell you.' I said, 'Okay, that sounds perfect.' I went to an interview; I did a few other things. And very soon thereafter, I was on board with CIA as a paramilitary operations officer. I served with the agency for about 16, almost 17 years, and then retired just a few years, just a couple years ago. That took me around the world to all sorts of places to see all sorts of things that I never would have, to do a lot of different stuff, and then lived… and then after getting out I started a company with a business partner which I run today in AI, intelligence and defense space for artificial intelligence and cybersecurity. I live in Bozeman, Montana today, a far cry from Virginia but big wide-open spaces and a few other things enticed us there. 


COLEMAN: Wow. That's awesome.


COLEMAN: So, what, how did your definition of leadership change while you were going through VMI? Like, you went through the Rat Line...

RENNE: So, I think in a lot of ways, the Rat Line is probably the first example where it's one of the biggest challenges because you have to do the hardest thing, which is lead your peers. And I don't mean that you should always be in charge, but you're either going to be a follower or leader and that changes on a minute by minute basis during the Rat Line. And leading your peers is the most difficult thing because nobody has to actually listen to you.


RENNE: In the Marine Corps, the same thing happens, all the lieutenants go to the basic school and they tell you right then and there, that that's the biggest challenge because no one outranks each other because you're all second lieutenants. Yeah, well, the Rat Line is very much that way, you have to listen to the, you don't necessarily have to listen to the third classmen, but definitely the first classmen, but in the second classmen and I say, the thirds jokingly, but you have to kind of listen to those above you. And so, over that time, I think, at VMI, how my leadership kind of style developed and change was first recognizing that it doesn't matter where anybody comes from, or what they did before, you're all, you know,

COLEMAN: On an even playing field.

RENNE: made equally worthless, so to speak, is as we do, and you form a bond over that, because you work together and you not just survive, but you overcome all that adversity and that is fantastic. But then, even as an upperclassman, the rat, the… leading rats is really not I say, not leadership in the sense of yelling and screaming, that is you are helping them to get to where you already are.  So, while I was at VMI, I had the fortune to have a lot of great mentors here, folks from different military background, services, and even civilians, meaning people that may have worn a uniform here at VMI, but had no military experience. And understanding that you have to deal with people as people, [regardless] of who they are, [regardless] if they are your superiors, if they're your subordinates, you have to remember that you're... you have a human being here. And sometimes you have to make hard calls as a leader that greatly impact them. But you also have to recognize that they are people and that you assess each person differently, that no two individuals are the same. And taking that forward into the military, for me, was a big benefit. I did notice that other lieutenants coming out of other places did not have that same background. They didn't get the opportunity to be around all the different leaders and, and people with experience that I'd had the fortune here at VMI to [know].

COLEMAN: That makes a difference. 

RENNE: It does. Yeah.

COLEMAN: So, what advice would you give cadets now, whether they're going through the Rat Line? Or getting into a new leadership position? What advice would you give them looking back on your experience?

RENNE: For while they're here at VMI? 

COLEMAN: For while they're here at VMI.

RENNE: Take every opportunity to do to get involved in things, it doesn't matter what it is, um, you don't have to be in charge of everything to be a good leader, that I think that's a misnomer is that we put a lot of emphasis on, well, you were the top this or the number one in that or you were in charge of all this? Well, what about all those other people? it doesn't mean they don't know how to be leaders. And there's not enough room for everyone to always be in charge, because then we'd have all chiefs and no Indians, right? So, but take opportunities to get involved. You can learn a lot from other leaders, meaning as a follower, you can. And there's also always opportunities to lead from within. And those are probably the most difficult things to do is to lead when you're in fact not in charge. But there's... somebody else is. And in the military, I think I found, and I know some my brother rats found this to be true, is that those experiences at VMI doing that helped us, particularly when we were faced with leaders within the military that were very poor or very bad, is being able to lead from within when you, in fact, are not in charge. You don't have to have a bad leader about how to do that, but it helps you when you do.

COLEMAN: Yeah, right.

PINKHAM: What about a recent graduate? Someone is a second lieutenant, and/or someone just going off into business?

RENNE: Sure.

PINKHAM: Would you advice for them as well?

RENNE: I think that the one thing that I learned and that, granted, I was in the Marine Corps, but I think that one of the things I learned is patience to recognize that you don't know everything. But at the same token, you may have a great idea. You may have a great thought of how to do something or an innovative approach to something. But remember, you are still viewed as subordinate and young and not every other leader will give you that, that ability to voice those. So, having patience and being… remaining calm. In other words, don't don't let your emotions drive you try and not let that happen. Very, very difficult.


PINKHAM: Emotional intelligence, right? 

RENNE: Try not to let your emotions drive you and say, Is this the right time to recommend this? Is this the right time to do that, or, as somebody I used to work for once said, ‘you only have so many silver bullets, make sure that when you fire them, that you're using it to shoot a vampire.’ 


RENNE: And not just for fun type of thing.

COLEMAN: Yeah, that's super interesting because the other two lieutenants who just graduated, they were saying the same thing about taking all the opportunities you can here. Like some people just sit around or, and are kind of complacent with it. But you have to actually go out there and seek that mentorship and want that and get in those leadership roles. That's really interesting that they said the same thing. He graduated…

RENNE: a long time ago.

COLEMAN: I won't say that.

PINKHAM: What might be a mistake that you might have made in a leadership position early on, in your career that you…

COLEMAN: learned from?

PINKHAM: Yeah, learned from?

RENNE: I think that I definitely did make some of the typical ones that a lot of lieutenants do is that you get out there and you kind of get very excited about you're finally there. And you're finally in charge of the platoon, or whatever organizational structure it is. And you forget that those, in my case Marines, but sailors, soldiers, airmen in the military, have all been there before you got there…


RENNE: And you get kind of… you kind of just take over and do everything. That ability to lead is what makes a leader not the be the authority of being in charge. And being a good leader means that when you show up, again, that you have patience, and you, you probably have platoon sergeants and other enlisted personnel that are in, in organizationally they are beneath you, meaning they are below you from a rank perspective, but you can learn an awful lot from them. And they can offer some great advice, as well as even your youngest marine or sailor or what have you. When I was a lieutenant for example, I had, at one point in time, I had a young Lance Corporal Green that showed up, he was one of our communicators. He had a PhD in astrophysics and something else. Due to a number of life issues, he decided to enlist in the Marine Corps and he refused to become an officer and he had literally designed communications gear for NASA to go on the Hubble telescope at the time. No, I mean, and hearing this and you're thinking that as a lieutenant, I'm thinking, “Why on earth are you a lance corporal?” And that's what he wanted to do. But recognizing that he had certain skills and ability and talents, and not saying, well, you were the stupid one so, I'm just going to relegate you to not do anything important. But utilizing his knowledge, skills, and abilities, he was also a very good person. And my platoon sergeant took advantage of that. I say advantage, meaning he, he leveraged that and said, Okay, then I want you to do these things and found good uses for his talents. So, understand that you may not be the smartest person in the room, you may not be the most knowledgeable person about a particular topic, that's okay. You can still be in charge, you can still be a good leader by listening by being thoughtful and being patient. Because when we let our emotions drive us we usually make bad decisions.

COLEMAN: Yeah, definitely. So, what are some practices as an effective leader that helped you on your leader journey?

PINKHAM: I was just gonna say, I don't know, like, like meditation or something. And practice…

RENNE: I think a lot of times it was one having good relationships with my, in the military, with my staff NCOs [non-commissioned officers] so those platoon sergeant types and whatnot, as well as my peers. Your peers can be a great sounding board for you, you know, a, I'm mad about this, and so vet to them, don't vet down, never ever do that, because you show that you have a lack of respect for those above you. And when you can vent up but you have to be careful, you have to know your audience. And that's the other thing is knowing your audience and understanding, again, that control of your emotion and also patience in terms of timing, that right now may not be the best time to mention this idea at the regimental officer’s call when haven't said anything…

PINKHAM: Situational awareness?

RENNE: Yeah. So, the company commander, the battalion commander, anybody else, those types of situational awareness is very good. So, that really helped me out in the in the Marine Corps, and then, in my time with the agency of recognizing that there's a lot of talented people there and asking for input, but ultimately as leader, you have to make the decision.

COLEMAN: Yeah, that's awesome. What military leadership skills translated well to the business world for you?

RENNE: Strangely enough, I think that we have a lot of veterans in our company. And one of the reasons we do is that we have veterans that understand that their skill sets in the military don't necessarily translate specifically into the civilian world. I'm not gonna say that's 100% there's, say, a nuclear engineer that's doing a nuke engineer job here is doing the same thing there. But in general, particularly from the combat arms side. Um, but one of the reasons I really liked veterans is not just because I was or, I am one, and I really liked them as individuals and commitment, but your dedication to the mission, your focus, your willingness to also improvise, adapt, overcome, is something we used to always say is that you're going to be in imperfect situations, even in the business world and if you don't evolve, you die. A number of business thought leaders say this, there's a lot of companies that are no longer in existence that used to be household names, because they didn't adapt well, that now, today, at the speed of things, even in business, you have to take that from the military of being agile and quick, and recognizing when things are changing, you better move fast, or else you'll get bypassed.

COLEMAN: Yeah, so last question is always what does leadership mean to you?

RENNE: Okay. I think, you know, to me, leadership means being able to take a group of people and accomplish something, where you're not looking for the glory, you're not looking for the accolades. You're there to accomplish a mission - a task. And you can do that with a group of people where at the end of it, they still want to be around you. And they don't despise you. Because Genghis Khan, you know Genghis Khan was a great leader people say, but you know, there were a lot of people really afraid of him since a lot of people died around him. So, maybe not that type of leadership. There is lots of people that followed other people in history that were not good folks. So, I think the real key there is accomplishing that mission, where the people you're around still want to hang out with you. And that they would do it again. I think that that to me is my definition of leadership.


PINKHAM: Awesome. Karl Renne, Class of '96, thank you for sitting down with us.

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